Neil Armstrong has died. Gosh, man, it’s the end of an era. But then, eras are ending and beginning all the time. Still, to me, it feels like the First Age of Space Exploration has just finally come to a close. We still have a lot of the greats with us, of course: Alexei Leonov, John Glenn, Valentina Tereshkova, Buzz Aldrin. Still, the freaking first man on the moon. You just can’t beat that.
It pretty much blows my mind to think that we did so much, getting to the Moon and all, with what we now consider to be basically analog technology. It was a really amazing time, even if it was basically an overblown government-run military project to try to leave the Soviet (or the Yank, depending on which side you were on) the with egg on his face. But it was also a time in which space technology and exploration was seen as being of self-evident value, and Armstrong himself embodied that time and vision.
Nowadays, it’s only kind of that way. We get little explorer-bots traipsing across Mars, which, cool as they are (yay, cute little American robots!) are just not the same thing. In the 1960′s, our time was the far-flung future, when we’d have commercial flights to the colonies at Clavius and Cheleyenka, and be sending missions to explore the moons of Jupiter. Instead, we have a Space Station we barely use, an empty rock for a Moon, and exploration of Mars which is basically a media blitz followed by an unceremonious denouement.
Our best hope now is that commercial space exploration ramps up. I’m all in favor of it as a matter of principle: the more we can get from space, the less we have to take out of the Earth. But at the same time, something in me just knows it’ll never be the same. The sense of purpose is gone, now, the mystery of it. I’m not opposed to making a buck, but the idea of Americans and Russians sallying forth to conquer the cosmos “because it’s there” will just never be there again. Not for a long time, anyway.
But then, at the end of the XIX Century, they thought they’d discovered everything, too. So maybe – hopefully – I’ll be proven wrong. And if I’m lucky, if I reach 100 in 2078, I’ll be watching the great ascent of Olympus Mons by the multinational team; and when they unfurl the UN flag at the summit, I’ll gladly eat my words.